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December 27, 2010

Deepwater Horizon and the Gulf

Deepwater HorizonDon't miss a couple of interesting articles from this past weekend regarding the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico this past April.

First, this thorough NY Times article (and accompanying slideshow) focuses on the destruction of the Horizon rig, which was a distinct from the blowout itself:

It has been eight months since the Macondo well erupted below the Deepwater Horizon, creating one of the worst environmental catastrophes in United States history. With government inquiries under way and billions of dollars in environmental fines at stake, most of the attention has focused on what caused the blowout. Investigators have dissected BP's well design and Halliburton's cementing work, uncovering problem after problem.

But this was a disaster with two distinct parts - first a blowout, then the destruction of the Horizon. The second part, which killed 11 people and injured dozens, has escaped intense scrutiny, as if it were an inevitable casualty of the blowout.

It was not.

Nearly 400 feet long, the Horizon had formidable and redundant defenses against even the worst blowout. It was equipped to divert surging oil and gas safely away from the rig. It had devices to quickly seal off a well blowout or to break free from it. It had systems to prevent gas from exploding and sophisticated alarms that would quickly warn the crew at the slightest trace of gas. The crew itself routinely practiced responding to alarms, fires and blowouts, and it was blessed with experienced leaders who clearly cared about safety.

On paper, experts and investigators agree, the Deepwater Horizon should have weathered this blowout.

This is the story of how and why it didn't.

Meanwhile, this Robert Nelson/Weekly Standard article points out that it now is becoming apparent that the Gulf of Mexico suffered remarkably little damage from the oil spill that resulted from the blowout:

Oddly enough, however, the ecosystem of the Gulf itself turns out to have suffered remarkably little damage from the continuous gushing of oil into the water from April 20 till July 15, when the leaking well was capped. One group of scientists rated the health of the Gulf's ecology at 71 on a scale of 100 before the spill and 65 in October. By mid-August, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was having trouble finding spilled oil. This squared with the finding of researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California that the half-life of much of the leaking oil was about three days. At that rate, more than 90 percent would have disappeared in 12 days.

NOAA explained one reason for this in a report in August: "It is well known that bacteria that break down the dispersed and weathered surface oil are abundant in the Gulf of Mexico in large part because of the warm water, the favorable nutrient and oxygen levels, and the fact that oil regularly enters the Gulf of Mexico through natural seeps." In other words, the organisms that normally live off the Gulf's large natural seepage of oil into the water multiplied extremely rapidly and went on a feeding frenzy. Another 25 percent of the spilled oil-the lightest and most toxic part-simply evaporated at the surface or dissolved quickly.

Damage to wildlife, too, was relatively sparse. As of November 2, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that 2,263 oil-soiled bird remains had been collected in the Gulf, far fewer than the 225,000 birds killed by the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989. Despite fears for turtles, only 18 dead oil-soiled turtles had been found. No other reptile deaths were recorded.

While more than 1,000 sea otters alone had died in the Alaska spill, only 4 oil-soiled mammals (including dolphins) had been found dead in the Gulf region. These are very small numbers relative to the base populations. Similarly, government agencies were unable to find any evidence of dead fish. Fish can simply swim away from trouble. Nor was evidence found of contamination of live fish. In one government test, 2,768 chemical analyses uncovered no signs of contamination.

In the latest irony, marine biologists this fall have actually been seeing surprising increases in some fish populations. It seems that the closure of large areas of the Gulf to fishing amounted to an unplanned experiment in fisheries management. According to Sean Powers, a University of South Alabama marine biologist, "It's just been amazing how many more sharks we are seeing this year. I didn't believe it at first." He attributed the change to the "incredible reduction in fishing pressure," and added, "What's interesting to me [is that] we are seeing it across the whole range, from the shrimp and small croaker all the way up to the large sharks."

Posted by Tom at December 27, 2010 12:01 AM |


I had heard their were less of an environmental impact after deepwater horizon than people expected. That makes sense that more heat = more bacteria. I wonder if they should take into account factors like heat and bacteria when they are accessing the environmental impact of potential drilling locations.

Posted by: Susan Author Profile Page at January 4, 2011 1:04 PM

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